Rising toxic pollution under investigation

The Scottish Government’s green watchdog has launched an investigation into sharp rises in toxic pollution from two wood production plants in Stirlingshire and Ayrshire.

The latest data released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has revealed leaps in emissions of arsenic, mercury, formaldehyde, dioxins and other toxins from the Cowie wood panel manufacturer near Stirling and the Barony chipboard factory in Auchinleck.

Emissions of climate-wrecking carbon dioxide from five industrial sites also rose between 2020 and 2021, despite emissions from other major climate polluters falling. 

By far the biggest carbon emitter in 2021 was the petrochemical giant, Ineos, whose five facilities at Grangemouth produced more than a quarter of all the emissions from Scottish industry. Other major emitters were the energy firm, SSE, the oil multinational, ExxonMobil, and the Dunbar cement maker, Tarmac.

Environmentalists warned of the “frightening impacts” of toxins on public health, food and childhood development. They condemned the “shameful roll call of Scotland’s biggest polluters”.

Companies pointed out that pollution fluctuated from year to year as demand changed, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. They stressed that they took their environmental responsibilities seriously.

Sepa has published the Scottish Pollutant Release Inventory for 2021 including over 80 air pollutants from more than 800 sites across Scotland. According to Sepa, overall emissions of greenhouse gases decreased by five per cent since 2020.

But carbon dioxide pollution from the wood processing industry rose by 21 per cent between 2020 and 2021. Sepa attributed this to “process changes during the pandemic” and big increases in emissions from two sites.

There was a 30 per cent increase to 265,000 tonnes from the Cowie plant and a 69 per cent increase to 193,000 tonnes from an expansion at a sister plant at Morayhill in Inverness. Both plants were bought from previous owner, Norbord, by the Canadian company, West Fraser, in 2021.

At the same time the Cowie plant’s emissions of other toxic pollutants which can threaten health and wildlife also increased significantly. Releases of dioxins, which can cause cancer and damage the immune system, tripled to 150,000 micrograms, the highest of any site in Scotland in 2021.

The site’s emissions of formaldehyde, which can also cause cancer, doubled to 147 tonnes in 2021, again the highest figure in Scotland. In addition there was a 39 per cent increase in arsenic emissions, and a 16 per cent rise in mercury emissions.

This is a shameful roll call of Scotland’s biggest polluters who are seemingly happy to treat our shared environment as a dumping ground in their pursuit of profit.

Mary Church, Friends of the Earth Scotland

The Ferret reported in 2018 that under Norbord, the Cowie mill had been rated as “poor” for pollution by Sepa in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2017. The site was also issued with a “final warning letter” following dust pollution incidents in 2018.

Another chipboard plant run by the Austrian firm, Egger, at Barony, Auchinleck, in East Ayrshire also recorded high and rising toxic pollution. In 2021 it was responsible for Scotland’s highest emissions of lead (787 kilograms) — a poison which can cause brain damage.

The plant’s emissions of dioxins, arsenic, mercury and formaldehyde also recorded rises. It released 34 kilograms of another toxic metal, antimony — more than any other site in Scotland.

Sepa told The Ferret that “quality control checks” of its pollution data had identified “an increase in emissions of heavy metals and other chemicals to air” from the Cowie and Barony plants. “This is currently being investigated by Sepa,” said a spokesperson for the agency.

Sepa requires companies to comply with pollution rules by testing for contamination, monitoring and reporting emissions. Year to year variations were “expected” due to sampling frequency and process changes, Sepa said.

Other industrial facilities that recorded increased carbon dioxide emissions included an Ineos infrastructure plant at Grangemouth, German energy company E.ON’s biomass plant in Lockerbie and Tarmac’s cement works in East Lothian.

Most of the top twenty carbon polluters recorded decreases in emissions between 2020 and 2021 because of reduced production caused by the pandemic.

They included four other Ineos plants at Grangemouth, SSE’s gas-fired power station at Peterhead and ExxonMobil’s ethylene plant at Mossmorran in Fife. Other major carbon emitters were waste incinerators, a whisky distillery and other oil and gas plants.

Scotland's biggest CO2 polluters in 2021

PolluterCarbon dioxide emissions 2021 (tonnes)Percentage change 2020-21
SSE gas power station, Peterhead1,128,000


Petroineos oil refinery, Grangemouth775,000

ExxonMobil ethylene plant, Mossmorran687,000-24%

Ineos chemical plant, Grangemouth602,00-5%

Ineos infrastructure plant, Grangemouth564,00020%

Ineos combined heat and power station, Grangemouth514,000-16%

Tarmac cement works, Dunbar488,00014%

E.ON Steven’s Croft biomass plant, Lockerbie389,00016%

RWE Markinch biomass plant, Glenrothes372,000-9%
Viridor waste incinerator, Dunbar307,000-3%
UPM Caledonian paper mill, Irvine301,0001%
Shell St Fergus gas plant, Peterhead277,000-5%
Norbord paper mill, Stirling265,00030%

Ineos oil and gas pipeline, Grangemouth251,000-7%

EnQuest Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal, Shetland181,0003%

FCC Millerhill waste incinerator, Dalkeith162,000-1%

William Grant whisky distillers, Girvan162,000

Shell gas plant, Mossmorran135,00-19%
Total Laggan-Tormore gas plant, Shetland128,000-22%

O-I glass plant, Alloa117,000-8%
Source: Sepa's Scottish Pollutant Release Inventory

The top twenty climate polluters in 2021 are the same as those previously reported for 2020 by The Ferret, then dubbed a “rogue’s gallery”.

SSE’s Peterhead gas plant remains Scotland’s dirtiest single site. But it produced 166,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide in 2021 than it did in 2020. 

Combined, Ineos’ various petrochemical facilities at Grangemouth have a higher carbon footprint than Peterhead. They produced 2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021, more than a quarter of all the carbon dioxide emissions reported by all industrial sites.

Friends of the Earth Scotland attacked the polluters. “This is a shameful roll call of Scotland’s biggest polluters who are seemingly happy to treat our shared environment as a dumping ground in their pursuit of profit,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“Pandemic restrictions have had an impact on the last couple of years of emissions but without a concerted effort from regulators and decision-makers there will inevitably be a big pollution bounceback.”

She added: “The grim picture for board mills seems to be getting worse with many of them pumping out evermore toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. We are already living with the reality of the climate crisis and just starting to understand the frightening impacts of toxins in the wider environment on everything from our health and the food we eat to childhood development.

“This is about the survival of life on earth. Scotland’s big polluters must not be allowed to drag their feet when it comes to cleaning up their act.” 

Egger stressed that it was a responsible company, regulated by Sepa, that did not exceed pollution limits. “Emissions recorded in 2021 are not comparable with 2020 as our production levels were reduced by the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the director of the Barony plant, Heiko Lichtblau.

“Aside from formaldehyde, the emissions listed come from the re-processing of recycled wood used to produce our chipboard panels. Formaldehyde is naturally emitted from wood during the drying process which is a vital part of the chipboard manufacturing process.”

The company was constantly investing to improve environmental performance and had planning permission for two technologies which would reduce emissions, he added.

We always work to ensure that we meet and, if possible, exceed environmental legislative criteria.

West Fraser

West Fraser did not respond to requests to comment. “We always work to ensure that we meet and, if possible, exceed environmental legislative criteria,” said its website.

Ineos pointed out that it had reduced carbon dioxide emissions at Grangemouth by almost 40 per cent since 2006, and was planning to be “net zero” by 2045. “We announced a £1bn investment in the site to help achieve these reductions,” said a company spokesperson.

Ineos argued that by making products on which people rely in the UK, it was helping to reduce emissions from importing them from abroad. 

According to SSE, the Peterhead gas plant was “essential” to Scotland’s electricity system. “The Covid-19 pandemic led to a lower demand for power,” said a spokesperson.

“We must do everything we can to decarbonise the site which is why we are developing a new power station at Peterhead equipped with carbon capture technology.”

Tarmac emphasised that it took its environmental performance very seriously. “Emissions fluctuate in line with production and therefore when production increases to meet customer demand an increase will be registered,” a spokesperson told The Ferret.

The company had increased the use of “carbon neutral or partial carbon neutral fuels”, improved energy efficiency and developed lower carbon cement formulations, the spokesperson said.

E.ON pointed out that the Steven’s Croft biomass plant in Lockerbie generated more power in 2021 than it did in 2020. “The plant underwent major planned maintenance covering most of November and December 2020,” said a spokesperson.

“This outage meant annual generation was down on previous years, with total emissions falling as a result.”

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said: “We provide solutions to meet society’s needs, are taking a leading role in providing low-carbon products, and we are developing and deploying technologies needed for a net-zero future.

‘’We aim to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from our operated assets by 2050, and are developing detailed emissions reduction roadmaps for our facilities.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/gbs097. This story was edited on 14 April 2023 to correct formaldehyde emissions from the Cowie wood panel plant to 147 tonnes, rather than 147,000 tonnes.

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